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An Inflection Point: HCRI Looks Ahead To SIRoS 3

“SIRoS 1 was when the question really struck me,” remembers HCRI Co-Director, Professor Michael Littman of Brown CS. “How do we keep the value of humans, of people, from declining? We’ve known for a long time that we’re at an inflection point, and the first SIRoS really drove the point home for me.” He’s talking about the Societal Implications of Robotics Symposium, first held by Brown’s Humanity-Centered Robotics Initiative (HCRI) in 2015. Every two years, the conference has been bringing together scholars and practitioners from multiple disciplines to examine the difficult questions of a future society where robots are part of everyday life. SIRoS 3 is scheduled for 2019.

“For so long,” explains HCRI Associate Director Peter Haas, “Robotics had always been a research endeavor, with ethics and other issues as more of an afterthought, but SIRoS 1 saw people who are making a big difference in the field talking to each other and considering ethical implications for the first time.”

The ideas that Michael references above are highlighted in a keynote address (“Robotics, Empowerment, and Equity”) delivered at SIRoS 1 by Illah Nourbakhsh of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. Littman explains that it included an early mention of a concept that’s been repeatedly making news in 2017: guaranteed basic income. “This was an extremely important realization," Michael says. "Because of robots, the work that had been done by people is being done by infrastructure. Some politicians rail against immigrants, but you could argue that computer scientists are causing the problem: the value of people is going down. This is exactly the kind of idea that arises when the research community broadens its outlook to include societal issues."

A second keynote (“How the Law Will Think About Robots (And Why You Should Care)”) by Bill Smart of Oregon State University, a Brown CS PhD alum, bookended three panel discussions with small groups of leading robotics researchers, economists, philosophers, psychologists, legal scholars, and even representatives of funding agencies. “It was really exciting to see the field changing,” says Peter. “SIRoS 1 helped us understand that robotics isn’t just research: it’s becoming applied research, with sociological issues rising to the forefront.”

You can watch videos of both keynotes here: and

SIRos 2: Seeing Through Their Eyes

A small, padded cube is flying toward you from across the auditorium. There’s a microphone inside: you catch it, use the voice amplification to share your thoughts with the group, and then throw it to someone else. It’s a good illustration of a key difference between SIRoS 1 and 2. Like its predecessor, the second conference dealt with the difficult questions of how to ensure that robotics has positive effects on society, with talks on healthcare robot policy, algorithmic bias, the legality of autonomous weapons systems, and more, but the approach was a bit less traditional.

“We had more panel discussions,” says Michael, “but we really focused on having people make shorter position statements so we could allow the audience to push back. It helped create a shared perspective, and it felt outside the norm of academic meetings — much more playful. Increasing the size and diversity of our audience let us see problems and challenges through their eyes. It was extremely satisfying to bring this community together.”

As with SIRoS 1, the topics discussed have only increased in relevance in the days since. As just one example, the juxtaposition of the ethical dilemma known as the Trolley Problem with the rise of self-driving cars, first proposed by SIRoS 2 speaker Gary Marcus in 2012, has entered the public consciousness sufficiently that it spawned a popular Internet meme and eventually entire web sites devoted to collecting variants of that meme. And research is already underway, including some by HCRI Co-Director, Professor Bertram Malle of Brown’s Department of Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Sciences (CLIPS).

You can read Bertram’s paper here:

“Problems like this have been discussed in academic circles before,” says Peter, “but it was wonderful to see strategies and possible answers presented. People see the future coming, and they’re thinking about when robots will be prolific, and they’re proposing solutions.”

“This year's SIROS 2 also served as a preconference to the We Robot conference, which has discussed legal and policy questions concerning robots for five years now,” adds Bertram. “This is an important partnership we hope to build on. Thoughtful science should inspire thoughtful law and policy initiatives.”

You can watch videos of ten SIRoS 2 talks here:

SIRoS 3: Showing Leadership

“One of the important things we have to do for SIRoS 3 is make sure that we have enough seating,” laughs Peter. “The quality of our speakers has really been fantastic, and we’re looking to continue finding the best ideas from around the world. We’re planning for growth.”

And the growth of the conference mirrors the expansion of the Humanity-Centered Robotics Initiative as a whole. It’s continuing to facilitate collaboration among Brown researchers by providing access to robots, robotic research, and building spaces, and Peter explains that HCRI has recently formed corporate partnerships with Hasbro and Sproutel, along with external funding to support them. The goal is to serve as an interface with Brown Robotics for the two companies, to help them understand our evolving robotic future from HCRI’s unique perspective.

“Robotics is at an inflection point,” he says, “like computing was in the 1970s. It’s not just the purview of a select few any longer, so we have to keep looking toward the future in the broadest sense. It’s a real opportunity for Brown to show leadership: interdisciplinary work is what we do well, and HCRI and SIRos are great examples.”

Michael agrees: “All the pieces are in place for robots to have a dramatic effect on individuals, but we don’t have a crisp structure yet. SIRoS is about aiming the rocket before it goes off the launch pad. It might sound playful, but it’s deadly serious to me. Robotics needs more roboticists, but just as much, it needs more sociologists. Right now is when we need the interdisciplinary approach.”